Guide to United States Copyright Law as Applied to Multimedia Productions

Producers and users of multimedia programs need to be aware of, and abide by, copyright law. Since multimedia productions often combine text, graphics, images, animation, audio, motion video, and computer authoring systems from a variety of sources, it would be well to know how the use of these materials is affected by legal constraints.

Although many books and articles have been written on the subject of copyright, some areas have not been specifically addressed, primarily because applicable cases have not been tested in court. Much uncertainty exists, and most areas are subject to interpretation.

The following summary is an attempt to bring together some of what is known regarding copyright as applied to multimedia. While not an exhaustive study, it is intended as a starting point to make producers and users aware of the issues involved.

Public Law 94-553

U.S. copyright is federal law, originating from the U.S. Constitution (Art. 1, sec. 8, cl. 8), which provides Congress with the power "to promote science and the useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors . . . the exclusive right to their . . . writings."

Copyright, as described in Public Law 94-553, enacted October 19, 1976, applies to "...original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed..." (cl. 102) including:

  1. literary works;
  2. musical works;
  3. dramatic works;
  4. pantomimes and choreographic works;
  5. pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
  6. motion pictures and other audiovisual works; and
  7. sound recordings.

Public Domain

Some materials are not protected by copyright. For example, you may be able to use materials that are in the public domain, such as any work of the United States Government (cl. 105). You may also be able to use works published without notice prior to the change in the law that eliminated the notice requirement (March 1, 1988, the effective date of the Berne Convention Implementation Act, PL 100-568, 102 Stat. 2853), or works for which the copyright has expired (e.g., copyrights secured in 1918 or earlier).

Obtaining Copyright Permission

Most other works are protected by copyright, even if they do not bear a copyright notice. (As of March 1, 1988, use of the copyright notice is optional, but recommended.) Copyright protection comes into being the moment the work is created in fixed form. Thus, it is up to the user to determine who owns the copyright and to request permission for use.

Exclusive Rights

Under cl. 106 the copyright owner has the exclusive rights to do and to authorize any of the following:

  1. to reproduce the copyrighted work,
  2. to prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work,
  3. to distribute copies of the copyrighted work,
  4. to perform the copyrighted work publicly, and
  5. to display the copyrighted work publicly.

If you decide to use copyrighted material in your multimedia production, you are potentially depriving the copyright owner of exclusive rights.

Legal Uncertainties

Patrick Lynch, from the Yale University School of Medicine, in a recent article, states:

If you are just using your project locally in your own classroom and have no plans to distribute your work, then few practical restrictions apply. But if you plan to distribute your project through a publisher, or even to distribute it informally without charge, you will need to make the same permission arrangements that you would make in publishing a book or professional paper. You should have a permission letter or a release form from each copyright holder in order to use his or her material in your multimedia work. (Lynch, p. 24).

Examples of a permission request and a release form can be found in the Appendices. These requests should be made early, before the materials are incorporated into your multimedia project.

Fair Use

You cannot ignore copyright law just because you are teaching a class. Classroom use is generally covered under cl. 107 Limitations on Exclusive Rights: Fair Use:

Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, the fair use of a copyrighted work, including such use by reproduction in copies or phonorecords or by any other means specified by that section, for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include--

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Official fair use guidelines have been prepared relating to books and periodicals, music, off-air videotaping, and software. These, however, are guidelines and not law. According to Copyright Office document FL102,

The distinction between 'fair use' and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

Ownership of Copyright (cl. 201)

In the case of a work made for hire , the employer or other person for whom the work was prepared is considered the author for purposes of this title, and, unless the parties have expressly agreed otherwise in a written instrument signed by them, owns all of the rights comprised in the copyright.

Most work performed under coalition contracts is considered work made for hire. The National Science Foundation

...advocates and encourages open scientific communication. The NSF expects significant findings from research and educational activities it supports to be promptly submitted for publication with authorship that accurately reflects the contributions of those involved. It expects investigators to share with other researchers, at no more than incremental cost and within a reasonable time, the data, samples, physical collections, and other supporting materials created or gathered in the course of the work. It also encourages awardees to share software and inventions, once appropriate protection for them has been secured, or otherwise act to make the innovations they embody widely useful and usable.

...normally allows awardees to retain principal legal rights to intellectual property developed under its awards. This policy provides incentive for develoment and dissemination of inventions, software, and publications that can enhance their usefulness, accessibility, and upkeep. (National Science Foundation, p. 17)

Questions are sometimes raised as to the rights of graduate students, particularly regarding dissertation work. According to the Virginia Tech Graduate Catalog:

Copyrighting of theses and dissertations is at the option of the graduate student. Students who elect to copyright their work must have a letter authorizing such by their advisory committee chair and must submit a $20 payment to University Microfilms. This payment covers total copyright costs, i.e., the copyright registration fee and two positive microfilm copies for the Copyright Office. (p. 36)

When the work relates to sponsored research, it is important to check the terms of the grant. Also, local university policy may vary. It is recommended that the author contact the designated university official (usually the Intellectual Property Manager) who will check any agreements to determine what rights a sponsor may have. A disclosure form is then sent to the Intellectual Properties Committee for review.

Duration of Copyright (cl. 302)

  1. Works created on or after January 1, l978:
    1. Copyright endures for a term of life of the author and 50 years.
    2. In the case of an anonymous work, a pseudonymous work, or a work made for hire, the copyright endures for a term of 75 years from the year of its first publication, or a term of 100 years from the year of its creation, whichever expires first.
  2. Works created but not published or copyrighted before January 1, 1978:
    1. Copyright will not expire before 12/31/2002; if published before 12/31/2002, copyright will not expire before 12/31/2027.
  3. Copyrights in first term on January 1, 1978:
    1. Shall endure for 28 years from the date originally secured.
  4. Copyrights registered for renewal before January 1, 1978:
    1. Extended to endure for a term of 75 years from the date copyright was originally secured.

Notice of Copyright (cl. 401)

(See changes in Berne Convention Implementation Act)

  1. Whenever a work protected under this title is published in the United States or elsewhere, a notice of copyright shall be placed on all publicly distributed copies.
  2. The notice shall consist of the three elements:
    1. the symbol (C) (the letter C in a circle), or the word "Copyright," or the abbreviation "Copr."; and
    2. the year of first publication of the work; and
    3. the name of the owner of copyright in the work.
  3. The notice shall be affixed to the copies in such manner and location as to give reasonable notice of the claim of copyright.

Copyright Infringement (cl. 501)

  1. Anyone who violates any of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner is an infringer of the copyright.

Today's technology, including OCR, scanners, digital samplers and video frame grabbers, makes it possible to copy almost anything and to alter the original. "But having the technology does not imply the right, and a sure way to invite a lawsuit is to assume that it does." (Glushko, p. 9)."


Glushko, R. (1990). Seven ways HyperText projects fail. Mind Over Media, 1(5).

Lynch, P. J. (1993). Developing multimedia: Considerations for a successful project. Higher Education Product Companion, Nov.-Dec., pp. 22-24.

National Science Foundation. (1992). Grants for research and education in science and engineering. An application guide. Washington, DC.

White, P. H. (Ed.) (1992). Graduate School Catalog 1992-1994. Blacksburg, VA: Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

Appendix A: Sample Authorization Request Form

Request for Authorization to Duplicate and/or Display Copyrighted Material




We are requesting authorization to use the following copyrighted materials:






Producer Reply:

Permission:  ___ Granted      ___ Denied

Details/Restrictions: ______________________________________________________



Signature: ____________________     Title:___________________



Appendix B: Sample Release Form

SUCCEED Engineering Visual Database

(Please fill out a complete typewritten release form for each visual submitted.)

1.  Format:   _____ Slide    ____ Overhead    ____ Video/film segment

              _____ Computer animation        ____ Other (Please specify)

2.  Year created:  __________

3.  Description (25 words or less):




4.  Keyword descriptors (at least two):  ______________________________

5.  Suggest course or area of study for which this image may be appropriate:


6.  Contributor:


        Address: ______________________________________________________

        City, state, zip:______________________________________________

        Telephone: _____________________    e-Mail:____________________

7.  I hereby agree to lend the above described material for use in the

    SUCCEED Engineering Visual Database program, with the understanding

    that  due care will be taken,   and the material will be returned in

    timely fashion.   I acknowledge that the materials may be duplicated

    and distributed in any and all manner and media throughout the world

    in perpetuity.  I further warrant and represent that I possess all

    rights to these materials and will indemnify and hold Virginia Tech

    and the SUCCEED Coalition, their licensees and assigns, harmless

    from and against any   and all claims, damages, liabilities, costs

    and expenses arising out of a breach of the foregoing warranty.

_______________  ___________________________________________________

Date             Signature

Mail to:  Alice D. Walker, Educ. Technologies, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg,

VA 2406l-0232

Other Resources

Books, Articles, Pamphlets

Bender, I. R. (1993). Copyright law and the newer technologies. Wilson Library Bulletin, June, pp. 44-47.

Brinson, J. D. & Radcliffe, M. F. (1994). Multimedia law handbook: A practical guide for developers and publishers. Menlo Park, CA: Landera Press. 340 pp.

Copyright Information Services (1987). The official fair-use guidelines: Complete texts of four official documents arranged for use by educators. Third Edition, Washington, DC: Association for Educational Communications & Technology.

McIntosh, S. I. (1990). The multimedia producer's legal survival guide. Santa Clara, CA: Multimedia Computing Corp.

Mullin, B. (1994). Copyrights on the new frontier. Tech Trends, January/February, 14-15.

Sinofsky, E. (1994). A copyright primer for educational and industrial media producers, 2nd edition. Washington, DC: Association for Educational Communications and Technology. $42.95.

Software Publishers Association. (n.d.). Is it okay to copy my colleague's software? May be obtained from: Software Publishers Association, 1101 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Suite 901, Washington, DC 20036; Phone 202-452-1600.

Talab, R. (1990). Copyright and multimedia productions. Tech Trends, January/February, 29-31.

U.S. Copyright Office, Library of Congress (1988). Circular 1. Copyright basics. Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office. (Copyright Office public information telephone number, (202) 707-9100.)

Van Bergen, M. A. (1992). Copyright law, fair use, and multimedia. EDUCOM, July/August, pp. 31-34.


MG128-489 - Current Copyright Issues in Education and Training. $9.00. InfoMedix - Phone: 800-367-9286, FAX 714-537-3244.

Copyright Clearance Center

CCC, the U.S. publishing industry's collective licensing arm for photocopying all forms of print publications, has been authorized to begin licensing digital uses of full text in networked environments. CCC is expanding its services to the corporate digital world and will gradually phase in other user markets. Contact: Isabelle L. Hinds, Copyright Clearance Center, 222 Rosewood Drive, Danvers, MA 01923, Tel: 508-750-8400, Fax: 508-750-4470, INTERNET:

Copyright Forum

To subscribe to a copyright forum, send a subscribe message to LISTSERV@CNI.ORG with the message: subscribe cni-copyright <your first name> <your last name>

Copyright FAQ

For a six- part e-mail series on frequently asked questions about copyright, send a message to with the following lines in it: send usenet/news.answers/law/Copyright-FAQ/part1 send usenet/news.answers/law/Copyright-FAQ/part2 send usenet/news.answers/law/Copyright-FAQ/part3 send usenet/news.answers/law/Copyright-FAQ/part4 send usenet/news.answers/law/Copyright-FAQ/part5 send usenet/news.answers/law/Copyright-FAQ/part6

This list is maintained by Terry Carroll, a computer professional, student at Santa Clara University School of Law, and editor of the Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal.

Copyright Videotape

Training Media Association. (n.d.). "It's Illegal: Copyright Compliance" - a 10 minute videotape, is available for $45 from: Training Media Association Headquarters, 198 Thomas Johnson Drive, Suite 206, Frederick, MD 21701; Phone: 301-662-4268; Fax: 301-695-7627.

Telephone Numbers

American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP): 212-595-3050

American Society of Mag. Photographers: 212-265-7700

Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI): 212-586-2000

BZ/Rights & Permissions, Inc.: 212-580-0615

DeWolfe Music Library: 212-382-0220

Harry Fox Agency: 212-751-1930

ABC: 212-456-7777

CBS: 212-975-3266

NBC: 212-664-4444

Motion Picture Assn. of America: 212-840-6161

Picture Network International: 703-558-7860 _______________________________________________________________________________________________________

Compiled by Alice Walker (
SUCCEED Home Page _______________________________________________________________________________________________________